The night before I was to interview Marty Morrell, long-time drummer with the late jazz pianist Bill Evans, I sat up late in a downtown Toronto highrise listening to albums recorded in New York and Tokyo: Marty trading fours with Evans and Eddie Gomez. Crisp singles and tasty brush-work.
The next day I drove north for an hour, and, with bug-spattered windshield, entered the Morrell corral. The instant I opened my door I was surrounded by hens, chickens, roosters, and cats looking for food as if it always arrived in a Volkswagen Beetle.
We started our conversation over coffee and bagels in his lovely farmhouse, and concluded in his studio/office located in one of the outbuildings. In one corner were his home-finished Slingerlands, the ones he used with the Bill Evans trio. On the walls, above the piano and taping equipment, were some family shots and a post card from Evans congratulating Marty on the birth of his daughter.
TBW: I was surprised to find that you’ve been living in Canada.
MM: The first time I was here was in 1967 with Gabor Szabo and then I came up with Diahann Carroll once and, you know, on different occasions with other people. I always loved it here. I always felt it was sort of like Europe but with the U.S. overtones—a really nice combination. We came up to live in ’74. My wife is Canadian so I got my papers in three weeks.
TBW: A minor miracle. Going back, what sort of schooling have you had?
MM: I studied classical music; the legit approach to percussion. I studied with Morris Goldenberg for mallets, and with Paul Price, and I studied tymps with Saul Goodman. I never touched anything relating to jazz; I just picked it up by listening.
TBW: This would be when you were going to school?
MM: This was in ’61. I went to the Manhattan School of Music, but I had studied privately before that. I took drum lessons, and then in high school I started studying mallets with Stanley Krell, who was a Broadway show drummer. He told me all about the Manhattan School of Music and that I should go there. My dad agreed, which was nice, because he had to pay for it. I passed the entrance exam and went for three years, majoring in music and studying everything: theory, dictation, sight singing, percussion. I also played in percussion ensembles. That’s something you don’t find too much up here.
I started playing dance drums because my cousin was playing in a band and he was out making money, you know, and I was still in junior high school. He was out making fifteen bucks on a Saturday night and I thought that was fantastic. So I just listened to the radio and heard what other drummers were doing and picked it up.
TBW: Was it initially jazz or R&B, for example?
MM: Well, I started listening to “Rock Around the Clock,” Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog,” you know. I used to play along to the radio, which was great because I had to use my ear and I had to change styles for every tune that came on.
TBW: Also, I guess you had to play at a volume such that you could still hear the radio.
MM: I used to turn the radio up full blast and drive my parents nuts. They can appreciate it now, having gone through all that, but then it was kind of tough for them.
TBW: Well, you’ve come a long way from New York. Were you born there?
MM: Yes, I was born in Manhattan and we lived in Queens until I was fifteen. Then my parents moved out to Long Island. When I was about nineteen I moved back into Manhattan and had my own apartment. I was more or less working, doing club dates and weddings.
TBW: Were you through school by that time?
MM: No, this was in conjunction with school but then I got a job to go on the road and I quit school. It was a gig with Robert Goulet when I was about twenty. The gig paid a whole lot of bread and I was getting restless: I wanted to get out and play, and the gig paid $400 a week and at that time that was a lot of money. So I grabbed it and saved a bit of bread and got a lot of experience. We travelled and played Vegas and all over the U.S. It was a regular big-band thing with strings. I got into jazz for a little fun, you know, because basically I started out as a commercial player. So after the stint with Robert Goulet, I travelled with Diahann Carroll. I did a lot of that, going out with singers.
TBW: When did you make your first recording?
MM: Well, with Goulet we did some albums with Don Costa.
TBW: Anonymous stuff?
MM: Yeah, just sessions out in L.A. with strings. The first jazz album was with Steve Kuhn and Gary MacFarland called October Suite on Impulse. That was in 1966. That was recorded at A & R studios in New York. Ron Carter was on bass. It’s quite an interesting album.
TBW: Are we jumping the gun a little—1966?
MM: No, before that I was essentially a student and travelling with singers, and that was it. Just freelancing, doing gigs around town and playing in rehearsal bands, trying to get by and keep the rent paid.
TBW: You mention travelling in the States. Did you make it to Europe? With Bill Evans, of course, there’s Live in Tokyo.
MM: Oh, with Bill I did extensive touring, all through Europe; in fact, we used to go to Europe two or three times a year. We went to South America, to Japan twice, and across Canada too. That’s how I met my wife, working with Bill in Toronto at the Old Town Tavern in 1970.
TBW: You were with Bill from ’68 through ’74. That’s a long time with one group.
MM: Yeah, and it was great—just super.
TBW: For a guy who started in commercial bands and who had listened to a lot of rock and roll, did you come by small group playing easily?
MM: Well, I went through lots of brushes! I think I more or less got the brush thing together playing with Bill. They seemed to be the natural way to go.
TBW: Did he give you many instructions?
MM: Bill never said anything to me about how I should play or when I should play. He didn’t care if I laid out or took a walk. The only thing he said was that he enjoyed my playing, which was really nice. I had total freedom.
TBW: That’s why you stayed six years.
MM: Yes. And the group evolved. Certain tunes we’d play a certain way and then decide, “Let’s have a bass solo first tonight,” or “Let’s trade choruses with bass and drums,” like on “My Romance.” That’s as far as the discussion went.
TBW: Changing the subject for a moment, you do a lot of percussion work alongside drum set players. Have you any comments about the way drummers play?
MM: The only difficulty I have is playing with a drummer who doesn’t know that there’s a percussionist there. Percussion and drums should work together to some degree. I think that the drums lead more and it’s up to the percussionist to lock in to what the drummer is doing, but both should lock in on the basic time feel. I especially enjoy playing with drummers who aren’t terribly busy and who let the music happen.
TBW: I guess with Bill Evans you built a style around that sort of thing, of not clouding the piano.
MM: The whole idea of the trio was a conversation between three musicians, and you had to listen. I mean, music is listening. Guys get too involved in themselves and it sounds that way out front.
TBW: What instruments do you play on percussion dates?
MM: Vibes, glock, xylophone, marimba. All the mallets. I might do a TV special that requires all the mallets and congas too, and Latin percussion.
TBW: Did you have any special Latin instruction?
MM: I did have a few lessons with Ramone Lopez, who is sort of a distant cousin. I met him in New York when I was thirteen. He was probably the first professional musician I knew and he helped me a lot.
TBW: Did you have any difficulties playing congas? To get it authentic is hard.
MM: I grew up with it. My parents listened to Latin music. The first drums I owned were the bongos. It was part of my life. I didn’t really learn proper technique until I came up here to Canada because I never played congas professionally before. I knew some of the patterns.
TBW: How did you drift into percussion? I’d come up to Toronto and see you on kit, but lately I’ve seen you on TV playing percussion. There can’t be that many drummers of your caliber or. at least, realm of experience in Toronto.
MM: I do a lot of kit work; probably a lot more than you think. I do a lot of work at CFTO where the band is never seen on camera. Let’s face it, there are some great drummers in town: Bob McLaren, Terry Clarke. These guys are great. I’m just happy to get a call playing percussion next to them. I get a lot from it and hopefully they get something from it too. I don’t feel, you know, that I wish I were playing drums. I enjoy my percussion work just as much as my drum work.
TBW: After playing jazz gigs and then coming here and doing session work, did you have to make a lot of adaptations?
MM: You mean as far as ego goes? Sure. Studio work requires almost a selfless attitude. But there is a lot of input required and creativity on a different level. But sure, you have to adapt if you’re doing a jingle and they’re paying you a lot of money for that hour. It’s a matter of being courteous and a good worker, and you get more work from it too.
TBW: Had you any prior exposure to the studio logic of playing sparsely and tuning the drums differently? A lot of your recordings that people would know are really different from the type of thing you do now.
MM: Well, I didn’t get into all that until coming up to Canada. I’ve never been one, quite frankly, for spending a lot of time tuning my drums. You know, put the head on, tighten it and try to get a decent sound and just play. But the studio thing requires more attention in that area, sure. It’s a matter of studying, listening to what cats are doing, and observing it more closely.
TBW: Which I guess you get a chance to do playing percussion beside other drummers.
MM: Yes, and doing it yourself and hearing it back often. You make adjustments.
TBW: Is there a different approach to playing Latin instruments in the studios as opposed to live?
MM: Playing in the studio, you don’t have to strike as hard. To be heard in a live situation you have to play stronger, whereas in the studio, the mic’ is there and you can go for more tone, rather than volume just to cut.
TBW: If you were to point someone toward one recording you’re particularly pleased with, which one would it be?
MM: I’ll tell you, I’m not terribly proud of anything I’ve recorded, because I always hear things I could have done better. Once you get a month away from it, you’re playing differently, you’ve changed. Hopefully, you’re always growing. I’m proud that I’m on a lot of records. I think that when I record my own album as a leader then that will be it. I’ve got the Latin group and I’ll be playing vibes. Brian Leonard on drums who is a studio player, Dick Smith on congas, and Bob McLaren who is an excellent studio drummer, plays bass in the band, and Gary Williamson—superb piano player. If I can bring up Ramone I’ll go into the studio. The kind of thing I enjoy doing is not earth shattering or world conquering. It’s more or less middle-of-the-road, you know, like straight ahead Latin.
TBW: Working in the studio often and under considerable constraint, you must get the urge to go out and just blow.
MM: Oh sure, once in a while. I’m approaching 40. When I was in my twenties and early thirties I had that energy, you know, “Let’s play, let’s play.” But I think my creativity now is coming out more in a total context of playing vibes and writing. And also, I’ve never been one for super long drum solos—displays of technique—which is great, but I’ve never considered myself one of those drummers like Buddy Rich, Billy Cobham, or Jack DeJohnette who are all great soloists.
TBW: We talked a little outside about how dismal a life one can lead if it revolves around playing jazz. How do you feel about young guys coming up now who are sure they want to play jazz exclusively?
MM: Well, I think it’s a good thing from the educational standpoint; certainly the rock thing came out of it. Originally rock had a swing kind of beat and it gradually changed through the years where the dotted eighth/sixteenth evened-out more and it turned into eighth-note music. I think it’s good to study and understand what happened before, but not to be limited and close oneself off.
TBW: Jazz was good to you. Among drummers your name is still a household word. But you’re saying that the pay is low and the recognition was not a sufficient reward?
MM: Exactly. There was a period when money didn’t matter. I had that energy and was, of course, single. I was on the road and having a ball, making a bit of bread, paying my rent at home and getting an education. If you’re smart you can branch out to all kinds of music. Getting the jazz thing together is one of the harderforms of music, I think. But as time went on and priorities started changing (I wanted to start a family), being on the road all the time is tedious. I put in ten years on the road. You don’t get a hell of a lot accomplished except the gig at night. It’s tough, even to practice or to try other things, because you’re staying in a hotel room. You go to the gig at night, you have a few tastes, you hang out afterwards, and you sleep all day and do the same thing over and over again. You might have had some exhilarating nights: “Wow, I played a couple of hot eights,” but there’s more to life than a pair of hot eights, man.
TBW: So you’re definitely not devoted to the notion of the starving artist.
MM: No, no, I don’t believe that. Nowadays is such a great time for musicians because a musician can earn a good living playing in the studios and can go out in the morning, do some dates and be at home at night with the family. It doesn’t have to stop you from being creative: you have time to write and do projects and do some playing. After a while you want something more than the glory. For me the glory doesn’t pay my bills, man. I can’t afford to pay my bills or send my child to school. I’ve got to think about retiring some day, and what if I get sick and I can’t play? What do I do then, sell shoes?
I think people should take a good look and go past just the hot eights and see life as more than groups of notes and shots. The sooner you think in terms of where you’re headed in the future, the more you can take care of business now when you’re young.
TBW: A friend of mine was speaking to Ralph Towner who was sort of lamenting the fact that nowadays, younger musicians are really playing it safe, playing be-bop only as recreation. Of course, then you have the Ornette Coleman school.
MM: I don’t know, it seems to go around in circles. I think the public has been bombarded with so many kinds of groups and sounds. You know, Ornette and Archie Shepp—I don’t buy that at all. I don’t enjoy listening to hostility and anger coming out in music.
TBW: Did you ever get any calls to play that music?
MM: Sure, I did when I was living in New York and I’d go and try to cover the gig because I needed the gig, not because my heart was in it. You know, “free jazz,” and everything you play is cool. Sometimes that’s fun to do. I’ve always found myself adapting to whatever gig it was so I could do the gig and get paid. Because however we’re going to look at it, we’re involved in an art, but just being involved in an art doesn’t pay your rent and you don’t want to be on skid row nowadays.
TBW: Have you seen many guys go down the tubes?
MM: Sure, friends—guys who are still playing little clubs and living in small apartments in New York, and always bitter, always complaining about the scene: “Oh man, I can’t get a gig. I can’t play what I want to play.” I’ve never been one to complain like that. If I’m not working here or there, then I just don’t have it together. There must be something I’m not doing right. Examine that carefully and then try to do what’s necessary to cover the gig. I believe in working and I’m not going to be a starving jazz musician.
In the jazz scene, some cats are very self-destructive, very narrow, very bitter. I’m not going to complain or be bitter. Take that energy and practice, or go do a couple of weddings. Take care of business. Be thankful you’ve got a gig.
When I first got to Toronto, guys were saying that “He wouldn’t take any kind of commercial gig.” I just said, “Where’s the gig, what time is it at, and what do I have to wear?”
TBW: Would you go back on the road now?
MM: No, I’ve had it. Maybe once every three or four years for a week. Some day I might enjoy taking my own band to Europe for some concerts, just for fun, but as a lifestyle, what you see here is it for me, man. I’m glad that I’ve got the studio thing together enough that I can do this. No matter how mundane people say the studios are, they require a very high level of musicianship. You never know what to expect on a date. You have to play in a lot of different styles. I draw on all my years and every situation I’ve been in.
TBW: It seems that the musicians who get the good studio gigs are ones who’ve had years of road work.
MM: You have to go through it, man. And that’s why it’s good for young guys to play the be-bop thing. I don’t think they’ll ever really be able to play it, quite honestly, the way Philly Joe did or Charlie Parker did. Be-bop was an expression of the time. You can’t really absorb the be-bop space—you might be able to study it on the outside—but you can never really get to the heart of it unless you’ve been there and grown through it.
TBW: Do you think there’s anything of the stature of be-bop now which reflects our society?
MM: I think that right now the “thing” is everything. Pop, jazz, Latin, rock. I think guys should get into it as much as they can—all the styles.
TBW: Speaking of getting into styles, a friend once remarked that a problem with interviews is that the younger player is told simply to go out and do it, in the absence of tips about woodshedding and practice routines.
MM: I’ll tell you, I’ve never been one to practice. The only things I practiced were things requiring a lot of technique, such as legit snare drum, like out of the Podemski book. But those who’ve said to go out and do it—I’m a believer in that also. I did a little teaching, but students would come to me and want to find out what the secret was. There’s no secret, man. You either hear it or you don’t. If you’ve got some technique behind you, you have the chops to do the jazz thing. Listen, go out and watch guys play, see how they get the sound. If you really feel it in your heart and hear it, then you should get it.
TBW: Okay. Who did you listen to?
MM: I listened to Max Roach, Roy Haynes, Philly Joe, Tony Williams, Elvin. How anybody would want to go out and try to play be-bop after hearing Philly Joe Jones is beyond me. He said it all. In eight bars he defined be-bop.
TBW: In your (jazz) playing, I hear more Roy Haynes than Elvin.
MM: Well, don’t forget, it’s the kind of music, too. You wouldn’t want to approach the Bill Evans Trio like you would playing with Coltrane in a quartet.
TBW: I don’t know. Elvin recorded with Oregon—what a mixture!
MM: Actually, Elvin sat in with Bill once. It sounded great. Bill didn’t dig it at all, but I loved it.
TBW: Let’s talk about some drum stuff. You’ve used that Slingerland set for a while.
MM: I’ve had that Slingerland set for years, and for the studios I have a set of Ludwig, five toms and a bass drum, and a set of Milestone drums.
TBW: Is there some quality you like about each?
MM: Well, basically I have one set that stays at one studio where I do a lot of work and one set which travels around with the cartage service to various studios.
TBW: I notice the Evans oil-filled heads on the old Slingerlands.
MM: Yeah, I used those for a while, then I tried the Pinstripes. I always seem to go back to the Ambassadors. They’re a good head which can be tuned many different ways.
TBW: You get more stick on the Ambassadors. You really have to work on the Pinstripes.
MM: Yeah, and on the oil heads too. You really have to dig to get a sound. You don’t get much response.
TBW: What snare drums do you use besides the blue Vistalite in the other room?
MM: That blue, clear drum—I was doing a miming gig on a rented set and for some reason that drum had a dynamite sound. I bought it and used it in the studios a couple of days later. I didn’t like it and it’s been sitting there ever since.
I have two snare drums for the studio. I use a Ludwig, the wide one, metal, and a Slingerland—wide but wood. The wood one gets a darker sound and the metal is brighter.
TBW: Do you crank them down or can you leave them tuned up and rely on the depth?
MM: They’re down. Pretty sloppy too. But sometimes I’ll tighten them up. It depends on the material. If I’m playing live I’ll tighten them up a bit more.
TBW: Do you get away with rimshots on back beats?
MM: No, right in the center. Most of my snare drums have a big welt right in the center and I leave it there because it’s a good place to aim-right in the pocket all the time.
TBW: What do you look for in a cymbal?
MM: I love the Paistes. They’re a super cymbal. My collection of cymbals includes just about everything, crash to Chinese-type cymbals. I’ve got a pair of 13″ hi-hats with a band cymbal on top which I use in the studio and live. I’ve got a couple of good ride cymbals, a Dark ping, sizzles—you know, it depends on the gig. For the studio I like bright-sounding cymbals.
TBW: Thinner, perhaps?
MM: Well, for crash cymbals, but for ride I like heavier for definition. There’s nothing like a good, old Zildjian cymbal if you can find one. I think drummers should have a variety of cymbals to suit the situation. I mean, there are some guys that use the same cymbals for every situation, and that’s fine because it suits their playing. When I do a small group thing, I might use a flat ride, whereas in a big band I’d use a heavy ride cymbal and also a 20″ Chinese cymbal for playing behind saxes, you know, to get that airy, roaring sound.
TBW: Ever tried K’s?
MM: Yeah, I’ve got K’s. One is a really nice 18″ crash with sizzles. But I don’t know, I was so sick and tired of hearing drummers with the K-sound—Tony Williams all over again. Everybody was just going after that sound, so I went the other way. Paiste did a lot of research. They’ve got a super variety of sounds.
TBW: And in mallet instruments what do you look for? This is a nice Musser vibraphone behind us.
MM: Yes, for me that’s pretty much it. I’ve always wanted one of those and I got it last year. Deagan xylophones are great, and I have an older set of Deagan orchestral bells which are nice, but for vibes it’s Musser. I have a Pro-Musser at the warehouse, a portable one. This one I use for my own enjoyment and for jazz gigs on vibes. I love vibes.
TBW: You’ve got great facility on vibes. Did that come since you moved to Canada?
MM: Well, I played in college, but I didn’t play jazz vibes. Since I’ve been in Canada, not being on the road and being able to come home, I’ve been able to work on them. So the last four or five years I’ve been getting that together.
TBW: You’ve always played matched grip, as I remember it.
MM: No, I played mostly traditional, but since I’ve been doing studio work I’ve played matched. Just to get the sound I think it is easier and a lot more even to hit the center of the drum using the butt end of the stick using matched grip. Especially when you have an array of toms—it’s easier reaching, and you don’t get the power with traditional. I don’t care what guys say. I mean, Gadd plays traditional but he plays a contained little set. If you play a big studio set with five or six toms, I can’t see how you can get a sound with traditional, and it’s awkward with the left hand reaching. And of course, playing congas, vibes and tymps—I thought I would stay with one approach. But when I do a military date or something that requires finesse or delicate rolls, I’ll switch to traditional because I can’t get the sensitivity with matched grip.
TBW: For military—that’s interesting, because I always felt that matched grip lends itself more to that straight-eight military playing, and I can’t get that triplet feel like I can with traditional.
MM: Yeah, for a jazz gig I do the same, and if I’m doing a brush gig I ‘ l l play them traditional. But if I want power with the left hand I’ll play matched. I was used to both playing Latin. The thing is to get both together so if one fails, the other is there. With traditional I found that some of the tom fills would be weaker: you would hear the right hand louder. Also, with matched grip it’s easier to crash with the left hand. With the rock thing you don’t necessarily want that extra sensitivity—you want sort of a robot thing around the toms. And it makes it in that kind of music.
TBW: That’s nice you can say that; you’ve really adapted, or changed, so completely.
MM: Well, I’ll tell you something. One of the things about being born and raised in New York City is that competition for survival is really keen. You get it together to survive. You either go for it, or say, “Okay, I’ll take a pass on it,” or just go and play some free jazz somewhere.
TBW: Have you found great differences between New York and Toronto in the quality of young musicians?
MM: It’s getting more competitive in Toronto now. It’s been like that in New York for years. The guys in New York have to outplay Gadd. It’s really tough but it makes good players. It keeps the level very high. Now the standard in Toronto is getting higher and that’s good. Before, where there was maybe one drummer in town who’d get the gigs, there now are maybe ten guys who can do it. So the best one gets the gig.
TBW: Do you see good things coming out of the colleges such as Humber?
MM: Yeah. Nowadays there aren’t too many places where you can go to get experience. At Humber they have big band ensembles, rhythm section ensembles— actually playing with a group, rather than just an individual in a little studio with his teacher playing on a drum pad. You can only go so far that way. When I grew up I used to play in show bands in the Catskill Mountains and I learned how to read. The more I did it the better I became. And I’ve used all that show technique in the last five years since I’ve been into studio work, TV shows, and show drumming.
TBW: Is the reading difficult in your work, in general?
MM: No, you use your ears too, and that’s where the creativity comes in. You have to interpret a part. There are certain writers who write every single note out for a drummer; it’s like Jim Chapin, Exercise 22. I have so much trouble doing that because I’ll always hear something of my own because I have so many years of using my ears and reading a skeleton chart. In fact, I don’t get hired by guys that write that way. I get used by leaders who are more sketchy. I don’t care for the other kind of writing.
Certain writers just do a sketchy chart and then get the right musicians for the right feel and it sounds great. The other writer must go through more trouble just to get what the first one gets by using the right guys. The track will sound more relaxed.
TBW: Were you nervous for your first studio gig in Toronto?
MM: Oh yeah. When I first came to town I hadn’t done a jingle. So my first date was with a click track, which I’d never played to before, and I didn’t really have the right drum sound. I went in there and did the best I could. It turned out okay, but I think word got around that I didn’t have my studio thing together. I was a good jazz player and I sounded good at Bourbon Street, but in the studio I was weak. So I had to accept this. Just because you have done one thing that people might consider great doesn’t mean you can go somewhere else and be great there too. I had to start at the ground level and try and get that together.
TBW: By woodshedding?
MM: By listening carefully; talking to guys. By learning how to get the right sound. I had to deal with this. I might have done two sessions in a year and a half. Then I had an opportunity once—a really important situation. Just by process of elimination certain guys were out of town; certain guys were sick, who would have gotten first call. Terry Clarke was sick in this particular case and I was the only one who was left. And luckily, one of the production people up from Texas knew of me from Bill Evans and said, “Get Marty.” By then I had done some more research and had a little more understanding of the situation. I went in with the attitude that “I’ll do the best I can,” and I wasn’t nervous anymore. Maybe I just wasn’t cut out for the studios, you know. Terry (Clarke) was beautiful. I went to his place and asked where I could get a big set of rock drums, and he said just to take his drums. They were tuned perfect, just ready to go. And I played right out. I didn’t care, man; I just did my best. And they dug me, and we wound up working the rest of the week and I made two thousand dollars. We did about fifty tracks. And then they overdubbed the brass and strings and everybody from town was in because it was a really big session. From doing that I started getting more and more dates and more experience. I did do, and still do, a lot of theatre work. I did Chorus Line for ten weeks, which is a super drum book, and They’re Playing Our Song. It’s good employment; it can get a little boring, but there’s a certain amount of discipline involved in getting it just so. I did Dancin’ last year which is a super show with all kinds of percussion and percussion ensembles. That was fun, but even that got boring after three or four weeks, eight shows a week. That’s another area of the business. It’s a shame that the theatre scene here isn’t as abundant as it is in New York City where there are, say, fifteen or twenty theaters going all the time with big orchestras. That supplies a lot of work. That’s another area where percussion came in handy. And also, you get a nice pay check: basic scale is around four and a half, and if you have some doubles, usually it’s up fifty percent. So that’s over $675, and you get that on percussion. It’s no sacrilege to go play music and make some money. Professionalism is not taken away; if anything, it’s enhanced since you have to be more of a professional to go and play these gigs properly. These are areas of the business that are available to anybody. You just have to work toward it, be available for it, and don’t write any of it off.
TBW: I interviewed Jack DeJohnette a few years ago and he pointed-out that jazz isn’t really appreciated in the States. How do you feel about that?
MM: You hear so many records that are antagonistic. And artists wonder why they are not selling. It’s because they alienate the audience! You go into clubs and guys are playing this stuff called “art” and wondering why people are talking and not listening, and they’re saying, you know, “The audience isn’t hip.” Meanwhile, the audience is paying their salary. You don’t treat people like that, man; not that you should play mundane shit. Rut a lot of this self-involved music is depressing and there’s enough depression in the world today without listening to it on the stand. I’ve seen Bill Evans turn the most common layman right around, just by playing. And I’ve seen him quiet an audience just by playing three notes. It’s the spirit he projects.
TBW: He wasn’t always right inside either.
MM: Yeah, Bill got outside but with a lot of basic structure always present. I want to hear something beautiful, interesting, or something fun. You rarely see guys up there just having fun. Often they’re there just copping an attitude. There’s such a range of emotions that can be expressed in music. Why just the dark ones? I think at this stage in my life I’ve come to understand what I really do appreciate. I know how I feel. With stability, now I can form opinions and not have to worry about what others think. When I was coming up in the business there were certain things, types of music, that I didn’t understand or like, but I didn’t want to say I didn’t because people would say I wasn’t very hip. You want to belong, you know. It’s funny, when I go back and think about what led me to play jazz—it was more of a peer recognition thing, because I was a commercial player before. I began to feel “I belong” in jazz.
TBW: But you did belong, though, and that’s maybe part of the difference. A lot of people, drum students anyway, choose to play jazz out of a sort of snobbery which purports some form of be-bop to be the only acceptable alternative for drummers.
MM: Yeah, exactly. Great music is an expression of a social situation. It kills me to see young musicians playing older music when they could be doing something original and with depth.
TBW: You still hear “Straight, No Chaser.”
MM: Yeah. You hear the same tunes. Although, I play with some groups which play the older tunes and they go right outside. But trying to play in the old styles—it seems that’s going backwards.
TBW: Are you worried that with masses of young players choosing to play very simple music, the standard of musicianship will suffer?
MM: No, I don’t think it is suffering. I think it is growing. People were saying that rock music was the creation of mediocrity in music. I don’t really believe that. It has taken us to a really nice place.
TBW: And I guess when you were growing up there was plenty of sub-standard stuff being played, just as in any era.
MM: Sure. For instance, Steve Gadd originally was kind of a be-bop player. He heard rock and roll and took it to another level, even though what he heard may have been mediocre. But the stuff he plays—he’s as much of an innovator, or more so, than Tony Williams or Philly Joe. For studio drumming he’s an all-time innovator. He’s beautiful. But I don’t know whether I’d dig his life style—getting up in the morning, going out and playing all day, catch some sleep, and the same thing the next day, forever. Some people, that’s their karma. But those people are few and far between: like Miles, Coltrane, Philly Joe. I put Steve Gadd up there with those people. That’s his karma. But for the next person down, you have to really know where you’re at in relation to that peak. You have to strike a balance and go with that. I think you have to admit to yourself, “Well, I’m not Miles Davis, or Coltrane, or Steve Gadd. I’m so-and-so,” and get it together at your level. I’ve never considered that I was innovative to the level of Bill Evans or Steve Gadd. I’m a well-studied, varied musician and it’s great that I can earn a living playing music. What a treat that is! Sure beats the hell out of going to the office. I’ve done some composing and made a fair bit of bread with some of my tunes recorded. That’s another area you can tap into. It’s fun, it’s creative and you can produce and orchestrate. Your chances of doing that and of having a hit are greater than playing the lottery. Rely on yourself. Nowadays is a great time. Open your ears and look around, and not only in music. Music is a great part of my life but my life does not revolve around it. There are other things that I really enjoy in my spare time—the farm, the family—things that are meaningful and make me feel good. And when I go to music I feel better about what I’m doing and the dark moods stay away. I had enough of that on the road living the life of the jazz musician.